Friday 20 May 2016

Up in Smoke

I've just finished Peter Watts' book Up in Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. Peter is a friend of mine, so perhaps I'm biased, but it's a thoroughly satisfying, immersive read; a total pleasure.

Peter notes in his introduction 'Rather that a straightforward history, this is a journalist's book'. True, he has interviewed many of the key players in the power station's peculiar trajectory from post-industrial albatross to property developer's goldmine; but, frankly, more historians should get out and talk to real people. Moreover, we get all the history, too: from (pre-power station) Edwardian plans for a theme park on the vacant site (trumped by the White City) to the ominous spectacle of Margaret Thatcher armed with a 'laser-gun', serving as starting pistol for one of several ambitious (and often faintly ridiculous) failed redevelopment bids.

I was interested to discover that Victor Hwang, whose company owned the site from 1993 to 2006, was actually a little in love with the building (although unable to summon the money or will to actually realise any of his numerous architects' ideas). I had always assumed he was a faceless, distant investor.  Richard Barrett, the Irish speculator who succeeded him, also had a romantic streak - of a sort - writing of his coup in buying out Hwang, ''The site lay tantalisingly waiting for a saviour, legs akimbo, breasts appetisingly on openish display." Property developers, eh? Barrett's project (pleasingly) collapsed along with the tanking of the Irish economy; but it established the template which now surrounds the station: 'luxury' housing, and lots of it.

This could have been a dull book, about council meetings, chimneys and bickering architects. Peter, a great journalist, instead tells a story about people, hopes and dreams. And it's an engrossing tale, although we already know the melancholy ending: the building survives, swallowed-up amidst unimaginative glass cubes of offices and shops. But it survives, nonetheless.

If you interested in more of Peter's writing, check out The Great Wen, his blog. It's well worth your time - as is this book.


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